Columbia woman's breast cancer fundraiser celebrates 10 years

When Columbia resident Patricia Artimovich was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 1999, she began to think of all the things she still wanted to do with her life.

On the list was getting back into horseback riding, which she had done when she was younger but fell away from as grown-up life took hold. Specifically, she wanted to try her hand at dressage, where rider and horse work as a team to display obedience, flexibility and accuracy.

After six months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, radiation and several complications, Artimovich got her chance. Several years later, with the help of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association, the breast cancer survivor established the PVDA Ride for Life, which has grown into a two-day United States Dressage Federation-recognized show that raises money for the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center. The event celebrated its 10th anniversary June 22-23 with a show at the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro.

"You realize sooner or later that there comes a shortage of future," said Artimovich, 60. "I wanted to see if I could learn dressage; I just thought it was very beautiful. The whole idea of doing that was something I could hold on to, and it was a powerful way to help the healing."

When she completed her cancer treatments, and "with barely enough hair to put under a riding helmet," Artimovich got involved with PVDA, the second-oldest dressage club in the country. Artimovich said PVDA has a tradition of donating proceeds from one show a year to a charity, and officials were supportive when she suggested creating an event entirely for breast cancer research. Then, she said, the event "grew and grew and grew.

"I can't quite believe this has happened, that what I hoped for in my dreams has come true," Artimovich said. "A part of me always knew it could become this, but it still feels like my personal 'Field of Dreams.'"

During the 10 years since its inception, Ride for Life has raised more than $470,000 for the Avon Breast Center. While Jeannette Bair, a Ride for Life spokeswoman, said it's too soon to tell how much money was raised last weekend, the organizers hoped to top $100,000. That money has been used to send oncologists to underserved areas in the United States and around the world, Artimovich said.

"We're really proud that we can leverage what we raise to make a difference," she said.

At the gala, Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the breast center, presented Artimovich with a crystal plaque from Hopkins in recognition of years of support for the center. Artimovich said she was "surprised, touched and honored" by the gesture.

More than 2,500 people attended the two-day event last weekend in Upper Marlboro, for the show, gala and silent auction to benefit Hopkins. About 225 professional riders took part, Artimovich said, and while she is not a professional rider "by any means," for the second time she participated in her own event, riding a 15-year old horse named Cezanne.

"Neither of us are young by any standard," Artimovich said, "but between the two of us, we have 75 years of experience."

Simply put, Artimovich said, the event "takes something beautiful to fight something very ugly and destructive."

In his speech before the weekend's gala, USDF President and Ride for Life Grand Marshall George Willams called horses "our touchstones. They are the shelter we seek when things go wrong, they are the keepers of our hopes and dreams. They inspire us, they give us comfort and their very being provides us with a simplicity of everyday joy."

According to the USDF's website, dressage is a French word meaning "training," and the sport's purpose is to "develop the horse's natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider."

For Artimovich, that work is an exhibition of harmony between horse and rider to execute the correct steps. It leaves Artimovich feeling peaceful and Zen, she said.

"I like that when you're focusing on you and your horse, you can't think of anything else if you want to do well," she said. "Any concerns — the stresses of the day, the fear of a cancer reoccurrence, any tough thing — you have to set it all aside for the moment. Like horses, you can only live one moment at a time. That can be a good thing — what is a lifetime but one moment after another? You make the moment as beautiful and perfect as you can."

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